As we batten down the hatches, hunker down, and rethink all our priorities in public higher education, I’m reminded of the similarities of preparing for a hurricane in North Carolina: Water, check. Batteries, check. Bottles of decent wine, check.
And don’t forget the good media coverage. Sure, it sounds more superstructure than base. Less central to survival. And obviously, harder to come by, as I’m not counting the small army of reporters on wind-whipped beaches, wearing designer anoraks, shouting into their mikes, sea foam blowing into their faces.
But reasonable media coverage is central to the fate of higher education, and there’s little of it left on the shelves.
This issue of Academe tackles the complex issue of media coverage of higher education, the public’s perception of academe, and the role that conservative think tanks and foundations play in both affecting media coverage of higher education and reconfiguring higher education itself.
Shouldn’t we just forget media coverage and concentrate on the basics? And what are those basics, anyway? A majority of the public supports the rights of public employees to bargain collectively, and while most still respect higher education, few understand the importance of tenure. Most of us can recite the stereotypes of faculty: we are overpaid, underworked, elitist, and irrelevant. We spend just a few hours in the classroom every week. Our arcane research rarely translates into direct economic benefit. We adjust like slugs to change.
How, exactly, does the public know this? Call me a conspiracy theorist, but it’s no coincidence those tropes frequently appear in the media. Our reality is a mediated one, and we ignore that at our peril.
Faculty members are losing a critical battle for the soul of America. And we’re losing it partly, but significantly, because we’ve lost the media. We tend to denigrate them, and they don’t like us so much either. It gets worse. The media themselves are on life support, as newsrooms downsize. The two institutions that theoreticians from John Dewey to Antonio Gramsci to Jürgen Habermas held up as most capable of effecting positive societal transformations are in the midst of relational—and individual—meltdown.
It’s also important to realize that the free-floating anger, loosely and incorrectly characterized as populist resentment, isn’t simply a product of the ascendance of Fox News. The media aren’t a unified category of journalists—just look at the ardent attention that Mark Taylor, chair of the religion department at Columbia University, received for his New York Times column that morphed into a book, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, or Queens College professor emeritus Andrew Hacker and New York Times reporter Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do about It. To summarize, neither book favors tenure. Or professors, for that matter. To say nothing of research or graduate education. Blow those structures down!
So as the winds start to howl, we should do more than check our supply of candles. We should start thinking about how we engage with the media, and they with us. Hurricane season appears to be here to stay.